It takes a certain level of maturity to be able to see that being different from others is a good thing. Most of us spend much of our adolescence trying to minimize our differences, only to learn as we grow that these differences are precisely where we find our strengths.
When we take yet another step toward maturity, we see that teamwork and collaboration depend on these differences. Synergy — working together and using our differences to fulfill different roles — is what makes the whole of a team greater than the sum of its parts.
Teamwork born of synergy ignites a spark that’s easily recognizable — it’s what’s magical about a great band, or a winning team, or an attractive community, or a joyful relationship. Seeking to connect with others to share synergy such a fundamental disposition that Dr. Stephen Covey includes it as one of his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
But synergy takes a lot of work. Anyone who’s been on a team knows that it’s not easy to work together, even with the best of people. If you’re feeling stuck in a relationship or team that isn’t working well, here are some of the hallmarks of synergy that can transform the way we work together.
Begin with trust
As a basic starting point, people on a team or in a relationship need to establish a good working relationship where they can trust and cooperate with each other. If not, we must consider what it means to be in that group and what goals we’re trying to achieve with those whom we don’t trust. If we don’t trust the people we’re working with, it’s time to step back and work on the relationship first.
If we don’t have trust and cooperation, it will be very difficult to move forward with a solution — even if you’re in a room full of experts. Synergy unlocks a process by which everyone will contribute to far better results than if they were working alone or at cross purposes.
Buy into valuing differences
Once you have pushed through initial conflicts to establish a base of trust, you can begin to work together. Without that base of trust, the way you work together will probably just create more problems.
Working together begins with a simple willingness to open our minds to new possibilities — to value the differences of others as opportunities to create new and better ideas together. Everyone should be able to buy into these ideas:
- I’m willing to set aside my own ideas to find a better way.
- I value other people’s strengths and can learn from them.
- I choose to be humble when working with others.
- I get along well with others, even those who are different than me.
- I seek out other people’s ideas to solve problems because I know that teaming up with others means creating better solutions than if I did everything myself.
After getting buy-in from everyone, re-evaluating the goal can help reset expectations. Clarifying the end in mind will get everyone on the same page. It’s amazing how far a group can get if everyone works together on a common goal. Making use of all the values everyone in the group has to offer is like supercharging the project.
When everyone’s on the same page, then individual contributions are seen as moving the group forward. People express their experiences and expertise in a way that compliments others. Ideas can be shared without fear of criticism or judgment, and the group can come up with new — even wild — ideas.
After a group has trust, has bought into differences, and is oriented toward a common goal, you are primed to be creative together. Here are some habits and dispositions that can help you approach problem solving with synergy:
- Focus on wins: Explore alternatives that help everyone achieve their version of winning.
- Withhold criticism: Defer all judgments while discussing ideas and keep an open mind.
- Focus on quantity: Create more ideas to have a greater chance of viable options. Then narrow down those ideas to find one everyone agrees with.
- Encourage wild ideas: Gather unusual ideas to gain new perspectives and better outcomes. It’s better to tame a wild idea than to bring life to a boring one.
- Build on others’ ideas: Combine and add to ideas to make an even better idea once you’ve got many good ones to choose from.
- Don’t get stuck on details: Stay at a high level so you can move quickly to new ideas.
- Write or record ideas: Take notes or record your ideas so you can refer to them later.
- Stick with it: It can take time to find the right alternative, but it’s worth it, especially if everyone is able and willing.
With these things in mind, conversations can flow freely until a solution is found and everyone feels good about it. You may find that the conclusions you set together have completely transformed the original ideas when you started.
If you’re in a dysfunctional group or team, it’s good to know what pitfalls to avoid that can make matters worse.
As best you can, don’t get lost in your own emotions or the emotions of others — stick to facts. Avoid bringing office politics into the mix, and set aside any rivalries you have with other members. And stop second guessing decisions because that just opens up settled conversations and undermines decisions that have already been made.
Another warning sign to attend to concerns the difference between compromise and synergy. The collaborative teamwork of synergy means being open to a new direction if the group arrives there together. That’s different than compromise, which requires concessions from at least one party (and sometimes all parties). If someone is asking for compromise, you might have to go back to rebuild trust and work on buy-in.
Practicing synergy gives you the opportunity to practice other habits of highly effective people. When you get together with others, you have the power to think win/win, even if others do not. You have the power to seek understanding before you share your own thoughts. When others are getting emotional or confrontational, you can practice being proactive by stepping back before getting sucked into any conflict. Return to your end goals and values once again, and then orient your mission around them. With a “first things first” mindset, you can steer the relationship in a more focused way. All these things are within your control, even if initial conversations don’t go smoothly — and they seldom do in group dynamics.
We are all called to see the good in others. That means letting go of any bitterness that might be obscuring our vision of them as whole people worthy of their own dignity. That also means valuing their differences and appreciating their experiences. Unity comes not from finding other people who are like us (an impossible task, anyway) — it comes from sharing a purpose and bringing our unique gifts to the endeavor to work together.